SHARM EL SHEIKH: Barely in her twenties, the representative of the European Youth Forum Lisa, is assertive, confident and knows her path in life. Her aim: to challenge the tendency by young people to be apathetic or violent. But most of all, to spread a culture of resistance to living like penguins.
“Penguins hide in their groups and eat fish; don’t turn into penguins, she said at the opening ceremony of The Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement’s The Power of Youth for Peace conference (Sept. 1-3).
Through the proactive involvement in health and economic development projects, youth can help alleviate poverty in their communities and their wider areas of concern, believes the young firebrand, whose implores youth all over the world to become “militants for peace.
In another inspiring interlude, 18-year-old Francis from Canada already heads her own not-for-profit organization after a life-changing experience as a volunteer where she waded through forests to give out pencil cases to underprivileged school children in Nigerian villages.
“Do something about it, her parents urged her and before long, she had managed to raise over $40,000 to support education initiatives in Third World countries.
It is a world that hits back hard on our dreams, said Argentine Maria Victoria, who represent Life Argentina, which aims to help the quality of health, and education through social projects and dedicated volunteer work.
“If we take action we can make a difference, she said in a heartfelt speech. “My Christian values have taught me that words are only valid when they become actions. There is always something we can do to help. It’s our responsibility because the little we can do can inspire others.
Her words echoed those of the Singapore representative Nathalia, who headed a “Speak Your Mind campaign in her own country and believes that those who have the ability and understanding also bear upon their shoulders the responsibility of taking action. And Rashid from Ghana has even bigger dreams, not only to mobilize youth for peace in Sierra Leone and Ghana, but also to help build a better and more sustainable Africa.
The opening introductions ended with Egypt’s own young hero, Omar Samra, the first Egyptian ever to climb Mount Everest.
“My dream was to reach the highest summit and raise the Egyptian flag, he said, “But this was never just a mountain . each of us has his own Everest to climb. Live your dream . embrace and endure in a quest to become a better person and to help others realize their dreams and have the confidence to do more.
To truly grow up, he said, we must remove ourselves from our comfort zones, “this is the key to live a life of no regrets.
In an extravaganza celebrating youth and diversity that brings together over 800 young people from over 100 countries including 120 from Egypt under the slogan “Youth Speak, We Listen, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak’s keynote speech came after she had given the floor to the young participants, putting into action much of what she promised to do later in her speech.
“By bringing in voices as central, as powerful, and as dedicated as yours, we give you the chance to share your aspirations in the way you envisage in your words and at your pace, she said.
She lamented the culture of violence which predominates our lives such as discrimination against those who are perceived to be different, violence in the media and the abuse of new technology, attributing this “epidemic to “economic inequalities and social and political exclusion while stressing that other factors are involved too since violence cuts across all cultures and classes.
In her speech, Mrs Mubarak also encouraged what youth can commit to doing now as “productive citizens, as peace workers and as key agents for social change in order to foster a “culture of shared responsibility.
“Despite the diverse languages, religions, backgrounds and experiences [the committed participants] share a common goal, that together we will build a more powerful, united and peaceful world.
The opening left most attendees with great expectations of a real inter-youth dialogue and the chance to listen to what young people (especially the most marginalized of Egyptians) have to say.
In a session titled “Rules of Engagement: What it takes to be Safe on the Net, the panel was mostly devoted to problems of child exploitation on the internet, where speaker Leila Ben Debba, manager of the international center for missing and exploited children spoke at length about child pornography and solicitation, stressing that “child obscenity regulation as it exists today is not enough.
British speaker Stephen Carrick Davies, CEO of Childnet also gave an impassioned talk how the modern-day child no longer distinguishes between what is off-line and his life online. There is currently a pressing need to educate and support both parents and children about how best to use this powerful tool of the Internet and how to model good behavior, he said.
The only young speaker on this panel was Mohamed Zohairy, a recent computer engineering graduate from the University of Washington, who, several observers believed was not representative of the vast majority of marginalized Egyptian youth.
Although he did touch upon the blogging phenomenon in Egypt, some attendees noted the fact that the discussion never developed further to encompass pressing issues like freedom of expression on the Internet, its limits and obstacles, nor was there any talk about how the power of blogging can perhaps be harnessed in a positive way to promote democracy and to create a more informed citizenry.
Instead the dialogue mainly revolved around technical security measures to protect users from hacking and phishing, overlooking important issues such as the digital divide that is exacerbated by socio-political exclusion.
Another session moderated by Al Jazeera International’s Riz Khan titled “Enhancing Youth’s Political Participation: Exercising Citizenship, though extremely informative, visibly lacked an Egyptian angle. The panel included a senior officer representing youth projects in Germany, a Lebanese Youth Development program manager and a Tunisian sociologist. There were no representatives of official student unions from Egyptian universities for example, who would have given concrete insights into the challenges they may face while attempting to express their political views through legal channels.
Still in its teething phase, the first International Youth Forum faces challenges, but with the First Lady’s huge support as well as that of over 25 sponsors and institutional partners – including the United Nations Development Fund, Unicef, The World Bank, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – the organization may be sowing the seeds of a renaissance of youth-centered activity to enhance social development and ensure equal opportunity.